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Why the Real North Korea Threat Isn't Its Nuclear Weapons

Friendly neighbors and wide oceans. That, in a phrase, is America's security plan. North Korea? Simply not a threat, says foreign policy expert Michael Desch.

Michael Desch: The United States is remarkably secure. But you wouldn’t sort of get that sense if you listened to our President or the members of Congress who constantly are finding threats out there to America’s security. And I don’t want to be in the position to deny that there are challenges out there, but I’d really strongly urge us to put these challenges in their proper context.

So let’s talk about one of the challenges du jour: The North Korean regime under the odious dictator Kim Jong-un’s frenetic and sustained pursuit of a nuclear capability.

There’s no doubt that the North Korean regime is a terrible regime, inflicting suffering mostly on its own people, and I freely concede that the world would be better off if they didn’t have a nuclear capability.

And the question then is, “How much of a threat does this pose to the United States?” And my answer, contrary to the hyperventilating that you see in a lot of the discussion of this topic, is that it really doesn’t change things very much.

To begin with, the United States is one of the largest nuclear powers in the world. Currently our arsenal consists of about 4,000 nuclear warheads that are deliverable in a wide variety of very reliable packages.

Contrast that with North Korea, which may have 20 to 30 atomic devices that may or may not be deliverable on anything other than short range ballistic missiles.

Now most people would concede that the balance is very much in our favor but say, “Look, this is a crazy regime. I mean, couldn’t this be a case in which a madman has his finger on the nuclear trigger?”

And I don’t want to defend Kim Jong-un’s rationality or his sartorial choices, but I would say he’s learned the lesson that many other dictators have learned from Saddam Hussein and from Muammar Gaddafi, which is: if you don’t want to be invaded by the United States, build whatever rudimentary nuclear arsenal you can.

Now, you can’t eat nuclear weapons, and a residual nuclear arsenal I think is no guarantee that the North Korean regime won’t collapse of its own internal rottenness. In fact I anticipate that that’s what will happen. And that will present its own set of challenges.

But they’re a very different set of challenges than the ones that we’ve been talking about in the general political discourse about the North Korean nuclear threat in our country.

So the question then is what the United States should do about North Korea? The challenge that the United States faces is when the regime goes south—as it invariably will, it won’t be tomorrow, it could be five years, it could be ten years—it’s going to pose to the United States a challenge.

And the challenge involves two elements. First of all the United States and the South Koreans will be tempted, if a civil war starts in the north or even if there’s just a large scale social unrest, to intervene. The South to reunify their country, the United States to try to clean up the nuclear capability.

But the problem is that there’s another great power with a big equity in North Korea, and that’s China.

And the Chinese are not particularly fond of the Kim regime, but they’re sort of stuck in a dysfunctional marriage with them.

They don’t want a reunited Korea under Seoul with nuclear weapons on their border. And so the real problem that we face is how we manage the inevitable endgame of a collapsing North Korea with China.

And here the solution is an explicit set of discussions and agreements with the Chinese about what will happen in this context.

And I think we’d be well advised to start now dialoguing with the Chinese about the future. And I think a unified Korea, but also one without nuclear weapons and nonaligned, without a major U.S. military presence could be the deal that would work for everybody.

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Friendly neighbors and wide oceans. That, in a phrase, is America's fallback security plan. It happens to be a very effective security plan, says Michael Desch, although you wouldn't know it by listening to politicians. Their squawking about threats to America are more the result of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex and America's history of interventionist foreign policy. Case in point: North Korea. The hermit kingdom's nuclear weapons are a defensive strategy, not an offensive one. Kim Jong-un is a rational actor who wants his family to stay in power, not risk the complete erasure of his country. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

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  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

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